BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Ever since Jeff Gordon burst on the national scene and parents nationwide learned his fabulous career started in sprint cars at age 13, we’ve seen a steady upswing in teenagers running full-size race cars.
But recently, the bar has been lowered even further and pre-teens have joined the fray, most “naturals on their way to NASCAR” according to their star-gazing parents.
That’s why we’ve spent this season closely watching Derrick McGrew Jr., who turned 11 in July. He’s been running a limited sportsman car at three tracks in New York’s Capital District. He entered Ballston Spa Middle School in September as a 15-race winner and division champion at Fonda Speedway.
“I’ve been racing for seven years,” related the sixth-grader. “I started when I was 4 in rookie junior box stocks, but later on, we raced in Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia besides around here. And last year I went to Australia and raced for people I met on Facebook. They were just here for a while to see how I’m doing in full-size cars. I ran two classes for them and won one and was third in the other, so they were happy with me.”
McGrew’s karting résumé shows 10 track titles around New York and second-place finishes in both the southern VDKA Series and Delaware’s Battle of the Beach Series.
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“I led in points in Delaware until the last race,” recalled McGrew. “I was going for the lead on the last lap and the guy I was passing took me out, so I ended up second. After that, I did a year in Slingshots and led the points there until we went on vacation. But we decided it was too much money and travel for what I was learning, so this year my dad started me in the limited sportsman.”
Despite the concerns of many, the youngster turned out to have good car control and excellent race sense learned in karts. By late August, he had eight wins and a big point advantage at Glen Ridge Speedway and six wins along with the track title at Fonda. But it may be his results at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, where the fields are double or triple the other two speedways, of which he is most proud.
“I practiced in this car for the first time at Albany-Saratoga, then ran my first race there,” he explained. “I went from last to the top 10, so I knew I could do it. Then I got to running in the top five and finally I won the feature.”
“People doubted he could do it but Glen Ridge and Albany-Saratoga gave us approval right off, so we tried it,” said Derrick McGrew Sr. “At Albany-Saratoga, he had to start in the back for five weeks and use a rev chip lower than the others. Our goal was to get laps, not win races and I knew if he stayed out of trouble he’d be fine. After four weeks, they took off all restrictions and he’s been very competitive ever since.
“What people need to know is that we’re building a racer, not somebody wild who wins one week and crashes out the next two or three,” his dad continued. “We’ve won kart races that paid many thousands of dollars but here the purses are tiny. We’re not worried about money or going to NASCAR, he just wants to learn to race properly.”
The younger McGrew says his diminutive stature has not been a problem as far as handling the car, but smiled when asked how the other drivers have treated him.
“Some treat me like a kid, some like an equal. But most of them have been really nice to me. I think my experience helped a lot,” he explained. “I knew how to handle traffic, be smart in the car and pay attention to detail in getting the car ready. Hopefully next year, they’ll let me move up to the regular sportsman class and I can see how I do there.”
When asked if he had complaints about letting the youngster race, Fonda Speedway race director Denny Tilison nodded and smiled.
“I had a lot of complaints early in the year, not so much about Derrick but about letting anyone that age race here,” Tilison said. “Since people saw him race, I haven’t had any complaints at all.
“He’s done really well and not been in any trouble, though, I still think he’s too young to move to the regular sportsman class next year. I also think that some of the complaints about the youngster were because guys had had run-ins with his dad, who was a very competitive, hard-nosed racer.”
Lastly, we asked Stewart Friesen, a seven-time winner in nine starts at Fonda this year, what he thought of McGrew’s performance.
“He’s good on the track,” tipped Friesen. “He’s got great car control and seems to be a really nice kid as well. He’ll be a seasoned veteran at 16 and I can’t wait to see him at 18.”
Personally, we’re against pre-teens racing, as a bad incident involving someone that young would bring extremely negative coverage in the newspapers and on TV. And in our many years as an educator, we saw very few youngsters mature enough to handle a full-size race car before they were 16.
But we have to admit, if an exception is to be made, Derrick McGrew Jr. is a heck of a candidate. So far, he seems like the real deal.
Remember the name and watch him when you have the opportunity.